Some would argue that millennials are little more than glorified teenagers. Whether true or no, they’re increasingly living like them: for the first time in more than 130 years, Pew reports, the largest share of 18 to 34-year-olds are living with their parents as opposed to living with a spouse or partner in their own home.
TAC managing editor Robert VerBruggen wrote a very informative article on this trend Monday. He notes that across many sectors of society—economic, educational, political, and relational—millennials are opting for a softer, infantilized version of the life chosen by generations before them. They’re prolonging adolescence, rather than adopting the difficulties and responsibilities of their forbears.
But it’s interesting to note that in centuries past, living with one’s parents until marriage (or even after) wouldn’t cause so many raised eyebrows or eye-rolls—because extended families used to live together, or around each other, quite often. The “nuclear family” is a relatively modern construct. And in other parts of the world, extended or multi-generational family living is still the norm.
While millennials are getting most of the attention, Newsweek noted last year that an increasing number of older Americans are inhabiting their childrens’ homes, as well:
A lot of attention has focused on returning millennials, but 10 percent of all children (under 18) are growing up with at least one grandparent in the house, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In most of those cases, three generations are living together. This trend has even reached the nation’s highest office. Marian Robinson—Michelle Obama’s 77-year-old mother—has made the White House home since 2009.
“As of 2008, a record 49 million Americans, or 16.1% of the total U.S. population, lived in a family household that contained at least two adult generations or a grandparent and at least one other generation,” Pew reported in 2010.
Many Amish families host their elderly parents after they grow too old to care for themselves. In these households, the grandparents forge strong and important relationships with their grandchildren, often functioning as babysitters and helping around the house.
But the average American home has changed in its purposes and rhythms since past eras when multi-generational living was common. Nowadays, most people leave the home in order to engage in their everyday lives: work, school, extracurriculars, and other activities all take place outside the sphere of the home. In contrast, the home used to be an economy unto itself—as well as a social and cultural hub. It was a place of industry and activity, in which its inhabitants all contributed to the day’s work. Since the industrial revolution, people have increasingly commuted away from home to work. This has encouraged the sense that “real life” is happening outside the four walls of the home, not within them. And it is this sense that leads us to look at a 20-something living at home, and shake our heads. “Why,” we ask, “aren’t they being responsible, contributing members of society?” This is only a question we can ask when the home is no longer a functioning piece of society—when young people are expected to be atomistic, fledgling, career-oriented actors whose energies are focused away from the home, not within them.
But it is true that there’s an additional, more ominous, facet of this trend that separates it quite distinctly from past multigenerational living: while many of young people are living with their parents because they’re struggling with unemployment or in dire financial straits, there are also a large share of them who live at home because they are without a marriage partner. Marriage is out of vogue, it seems, with many in the millennial generation. And while their marital delay may be influenced in part by financial concerns, this trend reflects larger cultural shifts—not just economic considerations.
“For many young people across the country, putting off marriage — or even settling down with a partner long term — has become the norm,” Gabriela Barkho writes for the Washington Post. “The average age for first marriage is 27 for women and 29 for men; in urban areas such as New York and Washington, those averages are higher.”
Why? People usually give a myriad of reasons: some related to one’s career or finances, others related to the seriousness of the commitment itself and what it entails (namely, the eventual arrival of babies). We’ve seen a pretty sizable shift in dating culture and assumptions surrounding sex: “hookup culture” and the prevalence of apps like Tinder inform young people that sex is not something that should be tied to a serious, intentional relationship—but rather, something one can engage in whenever it seems most pleasant and personally beneficial.
Marriage, meanwhile, is scary and limiting. It requires work, commitment, and a whole lot of sacrifice. A certain degree of angst over “what else or who else is out there” seems to dominate young peoples’ lives. And—ironically—it’s paralyzing. It leads to stasis, rather than to a bevy of choices or growth. When we are overwhelmed by all the possible paths our lives could take, we’re unable to forge any certain path. We’re not able to do anything concrete or meaningful.
One millennial argued for The Guardian in 2015 that taking the time to explore life options would make his generation better in the end: forging individuals who engage in “identity exploration, instability, [and] self-focus,” and using such exploration to become more creative and self-actualized. “With longer life expectancies, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we are taking our time growing up,” he writes. “It’s just going to take some time for my generation to get where others were years before them. So sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. … We’ll get there when we get there.”
But will we?
Something I’ve learned about indecision and the inability to commit is that it perpetuates itself, and leads to a sort of slavery. The very possibility of “missing out” on some tantalizing piece of information leads me to scroll the news endlessly; the possibility of “missing out” on some perfect “Mr. Right” leads many to reject a committed relationship with a real, flawed person.
Identity isn’t only built around the self and its acts of discovery. It’s also built around community. And it’s contingent on our ability to make meaningful, purposeful decisions within that community sphere—decisions that give us deep roots, nourishing soil, and healthy ways to express our individuality.
Ironically, it is possible that this move homeward could shift or change the way young people work and live for the better. By planting them in a familial sphere, with a community, it could remind young people of the values and relationships that have informed and nourished them. If they have an elderly relative around, it could give them a sense of history and context—an understanding of the fact that life is short, and it’s important to build lasting relationships. It could encourage them to invest in their local community, and build a life around the friends and family that matter to them.
It could also help reinvigorate the home as a sphere of economic activity: as more elderly people move into their children’s homes, as more Americans begin to telecommute, and as more families choose to homeschool, the home may continue to become a revitalized and important sphere of life. If so, young people at home could play a vital role in that sphere: helping with everything from domestic work to child or elderly care, gardening and landscaping to repair work and maintenance.
But all of this is contingent upon the goals and attitudes young people are willing to bring to this shift. The millennial who wants to become an intentional and loving part of his or her community can’t spend every waking hour playing video games in their parents’ basement.
So to the millennials living at home, I would encourage you: Begin committing. Be purposeful. Invest in your family relationships. Be a diligent and caring member of the house you live in—whether it’s your parents, or your own. Work actively toward getting a job. If it isn’t prestigious or special, still choose to commit to it. Make something of it.
If you can’t find a job—volunteer at a local shelter or nonprofit, join a club, or participate in local church events. Babysit for a needy sibling or friend. Start taking evening classes or polishing your language skills via Duolingo. Visit an elderly relative or neighbor. Learn a new skill—like cooking, repair work, or playing an instrument.
Because living with your parents doesn’t have to be a dead end. Lack of money doesn’t mean lack of opportunity. Any home can be a center of creative and personal flourishing. It all depends on what you make of it.